Reflections on the relation of personal change and activism, micro- and macro-politics, non-violence and combativeness

Practices of personal change

First, some example of what I mean by practices of personal change: psychotherapy-related practices like co-counselling, non-violent communication, soma-therapy, radical therapy; classical psychotherapies such as psychoanalysis or Gestalt therapy; body psychotherapies such as Biosynthesis or Functional Analysis; various kinds of bodywork and/or energy work, such as shiatsu or osteopathy; somatic movement practices such as the Alexander Technique or the Feldenkrais method; more or less spiritiual healing movement practices, such as yoga, qi gong, authentic movement or contemplative dance; spiritual movement practices like Sufi dancing; martial arts like aikido or kalaripayyat; meditation practices such as ZaZen or Vipassana; artistic movement practices such as post-modern dance and physical theatre; and various combinations of some of the above, such as dance therapy or art therapy. The psychotherapy-spirituality-bodywork-movement-martial arts-dance-theatre-spectrum, one might say.

What all these have in common, in my view, is that they are individual or small group practices and that the changes they produce are obvious at the individual/personal, interpersonal and small group level.

Claims of global effects of personal practices

Many practitioners, particularly of spiritual practices, but also of others, claim that the effects of these practices are more general: social, global, even universal. Or that the personal changes wrought by some particular practice are part of, or a manifestation of, some larger change in the world, a new age, etc.

I do subscribe to a world view that posits the existence of subtle energy fields not only in and around living beings, but also in and around what in mainstream Western thought are inanimate objects, such as mountains or large bodies of water. So to me the idea of information spreading through such fields in some fashion seems quite plausible.

I find that there is good evidence for the existence of such phenomena, notwithstanding the fact that they are not (yet) recognised by mainstream Western science. But, in my view, they are not fully explained by any current alternative scientific theory, either, nor adequately represented by any extant spiritual or religious system of belief/knowledge.

Excursion: Science and spirituality

I’ll briefly explain this a bit more. My attitude towards science is informed by critical marxist critiques of science and feminist science studies in particular, and by critical approaches in the philosophy of science more generally. My goal is to think beyond and outside dichotomous alternatives like rationalism and irrationalism, scientism and romanticism, techno-enthusiasm and return-to-nature nostalgia.

I have been studying and practicing different types of bodywork, including what one could call energetic bodywork, for about 30 years. At the same time, I have been reading and thinking about various concepts of bio-energy in different therapeutic systems, and trying to work through all this from a pro-feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian political perspective informed by queer and post-colonial theory. With the goal of going beyond the narrow conception of science of traditional Left rationalism and coming up with ways of thinking about the body, bio-energy, subtle energy fields, levels of existence, souls… without taking on board all ideological elements of the various spiritual traditions these concepts are enmeshed in and shaped by.

Spiritual traditions that are only alive today because their way of making sense of the world helped sustain social domination to a greater or lesser degree. I assume that had they not, from the beginning, been complicit with social arragements embedded in and relaying various kinds of domination and exploitation – or at least quickly made the right compromises with the right ideas and the right people – their proponents would have been quickly gotten rid of (or made offers they could not refuse) by the powers that be. And the tradition would never have spread beyond a village or two. This is surely not the whole story, and there were surely other traditions in the past, but as much of history is, generally speaking, whatever the victors and their scribes find fitting to write down, it’s not surprising that we have next to no information about egalitarian, rebellious or revolutionary spiritualities of the past.

Social effects of practices of personal change

Coming back to the relation of personal change and social change: I do not reject claims of global effects of personal practices resonating through the world out of hand. I do remain extremely skeptical, though, especially when it comes to the idea that many people doing a certain practice will necessarily have positive transformative effects on society. I am particularly unconvinced by claims that the widespread adoption of this or that non-political spiritual or other personal practice would be a wholly sufficient means of transforming oppressive and unjust social structures into something better.

In my view many people who engage in practices of personal change (in the sense outlined above) tend to overestimate the positive social effects of what they are doing and underestimate the risk (or degree) of asymmetrical acculturation of their alternative cultural practices by mainstream culture (integration of minor practices into the mainstream without any fundamental changes in the mainstream). Many people whose life centres on such practices hold vague and naïve ideas about how social change is to be brought about, and in what ways a desirable society would differ from the one we have now.

The problematic relation of personal change and political activism

I see two connected problems regarding the relation of personal change and political change, a problem of “range” and a problem of “combativeness”.

The problem of range

By the problem of “range” (you could also say, of “level”, or of “layer”), I refer to the fact that many if not all forms of domination have a macropolitical component, are at least in part global and systemic, or at least tied to a global and systemic level – whereas the effects of practices of personal change manifest at a micropolitical, personal or small group level. And the chains of cause and effect, mutual influence or coconstitution, etc, could be said to have shorter and longer “ranges”, that is, distances over which they operate – thus the term “problem of range”.

Capitalist social relations are a good example for what I mean by the global and systemic aspect of social relations of domination. Capitalist dynamics are not only independent of the will of “regular people”, but even the “big players” – corporations whose wealth today exceeds that of some of the smaller nation states – have no control over them. Their ideology-producing lackeys in the economy departments of respectable universities obviously have no clue what is going on.

One meaning of Marx’ term “alienation” is meant to capture this: humans have created and maintain – by their everyday actions – social relations that they do not control. “Alienation” because the social relation has become “alien” to its creators, has taken on “a life of its own”, acts “behind their backs”, like an “invisible hand”, etc.

One way in which the problem of range manifests, I would say, is in the incredible feats of integration of rebellious cultures, new lifestyles, new social movements and forms of resistance… by capitalist racist-patriarchal class society that we have witnessed especially since the nineteen-sixties.

I believe social and cultural phenomena that seemed, at least at first, quite incompatible with “the system”, could be integrated because they were too local and particular to resist repression and integration. They were outranged by global relations of domination.

The lesson I draw from observing much that once seemed incompatible with “the mainstream” become a part of it over the last 30 years – without any fundamental social change, in parallel with deteriorating living conditions for the majority of people on the planet, massive destruction of other beings and the earth… – is that as long as social relations of domination remain operative and fundamentally unchallenged at a global level, local resistances and micropolitical practices will be either eradicated or integrated.

I believe fundamental social change will only be possible through a change of global social structures, which I believe can only be achieved by globally co-ordinated mass social movements. Micropolitical “short range” work is necessary (albeit more necessary than many classical political activists were, or are, willing to admit), but not sufficient.

Some questions I have, therefore, are: how can practices of personal change contribute to the building of effective, durable, livable, global, radical social movements? How can personal change work and such political activism be fitted together? How can we balance the time and energy put into personal change work with that invested in political activism?

The problem of combativeness

For people who believe in the viability of a completely non-violent path to fundamental social change, this is a non-problem. Some politically progressive people who practice non-violent communication, work with restorative circles and such, for example, seem to assume that spreading the principles of non-violence through society in different ways in this way will lead to fundamental social change, or at least, lead to a better outcome than any other political strategy. For proponents of non-violence as a general principle, there is a simple continuity between trying to cultivate empathy and understanding in small groups engaged in some practice of personal change, on the one hand, and engaging in non-violent political action at rallies, protests, occupations, etc, on the other.

I believe that non-violent political strategies are useful and valuable in many situations. What’s more, the fate of many armed organisations of the Left should alert us to how dangerous the willingness to let ends justify means, a fascination with violence and weapons, and a fixation on efficiency in combat, can be to the emancipatory “soul” of any group, organisation or movement. Especially when hierarchical and authoritarian modes of achieving the desired efficiency and combativeness are not questioned.

But I don’t believe that a completely non-violent strategy for global social change can be successful. No ruling class1 has ever given up its privileges voluntarily and I see no reason to believe that such an event will take place in this century, or the next, or ever. Among many other things, social movements will also need to be “war machines”. I believe that among many other things, we will need to able and willing to fight.

Combination of nonviolence and combativeness at different levels

So, for me the question is how to combine a culture of non-violence “within” (our own groups and networks) with the necessary, selective and reasoned combativeness “without” (particularly when faced with state repression or organised right wingers…)

Put somewhat differently, I am in favour of making processes of personal change an integral part of radical politics and of trying to use and adapt existing therapeutic and communication techniques. But I believe that personal change follows a different logic from political struggle, which is inevitably about confrontation and seeking strategic positions of power (even if the long term goal is to get rid of structures of power altogether), whereas personal change needs some degree of protection from the rigours of struggle and competition, and some degree of suspension of judgment.

On community and finding connection

Restorative circles and similar practices aim to restore a sense of community and connection to people who, particularly in the aftermath of conflict, do not recognise each other as part of the same community, as humans, as connected, any more. I find restoring community a worthy goal, as far as it goes, and I believe in the potential of restorative circles as a method.

But I would like to juxtapose to this focus on restoring human connections, the importance of working against certain connections (in the sense of identifications with a group, recognition of others as human beings because they belong to my group, etc), certain belongings, and certain allegiances to certain communities.

This is not necessarily a contradiction. Many of us would surely agree that one goal of radical politics should be to get as many people as possible to switch their allegiance from narrow-minded, sometimes defensive, sometimes plain reactionary group identitifications, to a more encompassing, human, and trans-human, sense of connection, and that working on seeing the humanity of people you are in conflict with can be one way of contributing to this.

National, religious and ethnic identifications are constantly mobilised by elites to undercut progressive political organising along class and gender lines. For me radical politics is very much about creating and spreading alternatives to national belonging in all its manifestations, to what Gilroy calls “ethnic absolutism”, and of course to organised religion with its obscurantism and reactionary values.

Combinations of non-violence and combativeness at the micro-level

I also wonder whether it is not too simple to imagine that non-violent communication, in the widest sense of the term, is sufficient in dealing with intra-community conflict and violence at the micropolitical level. Specifically I wonder about the claim of some practitioners of restorative circles and NVC that social pressure, often equated with punishment, is always counter-productive, and that participation in groups and circles aiming to deal with intra-community conflict and violence should always be a matter of free choice for everyone. I am not so sure. For one, the whole concept of free choice does not make much sense to me. I would say all choices are made under certain conditions, and this always involves constraints, be they “natural” or social. So I see no clear dividing line between the absence and the presence of social pressure. As soon as I enter a social space, there are explicit and implicit norms, and different forms of social pressure are brought to bear on those who do not conform with them. For me the ideal is not a space without norms, or without social pressure, but a space with emancipatory norms, and productive and flexible, rather than cruel and rigid, types of social pressure.

From my experience in the field of profeminist men’s politics, I would say a combination of social pressure and support can elicit more consciousness-raising and more personal change than either exclusively exerting relentless social pressure on a person, or only engaging in “soft” communication, giving understanding and care. In my personal experience the crisis of “decompensation” some privileged persons experience when sources of appreciation, care and listening they are used to having at their free disposal, are withdrawn, and they are brought to understand experientially the asymmetry of the social relations they live, can be a very productive moment, a turning point.

Is aikido a non-violent practice? In any case it can be used to disarm an attacker. Experiences of being disarmed, when followed up by an offer of engaging as equals afterwards, made in good faith, do not necessarily have to lead to poisonous resentment on the part of the person who was disarmed.

This brings me to the provisional end of these reflections. Thank your for your attention.

1 Although many radicals today may have a better understanding of how capitalist social relations are enmeshed with other kinds of domination and exploitation than their predecessors a hundred or two hundred years ago, this does not mean that the nature of capitalist class society has fundamentally changed. Capitalism is not a system as total as many Marxists thought, and partly still think, and not as determinant of everything else in society as older generations of radicals were led to believe. But this does not mean that speaking about capitalism as a social system does not make sense anymore. The same goes for other key terms of the vocabulary of revolutionary workers’ movements. I think it is not a smart choice to cut ourselves off from anarchist and marxist traditions of the last few hundred years by talking about “the 1%”, “the elite” and such. I suggest we call the ruling class of the human population of this planet by its proper name: the capitalist class or bourgeoisie. This means, the relatively small group of people who legally own or otherwise control the means of production and who, through their control of the apparatus of state, that is, first and foremost, the means of violence, rule over humanity (and who “happen to be” mostly men, mostly white, and still mostly based in Europe and North America). This control of the state is of course different in degree and mode in different regions, more or less contested in various places and at various times, but globally, at present, quite complete.